Ravell Call, Deseret News
Clouds float by Mount Timpanogos on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.

PROVO — The Deseret News American Family Survey, a new study published in Clinical Psychological Science, and a few observations from the Thanksgiving table mean it's time to talk seriously about cellphone use.

My extended family gathered Thursday at Timpanogos Lodge, just above Sundance, for the holiday replete with the usual trimmings: turkey, ham, wonderful side dishes, Janey's pies, my mother's apple crisp and dozens of my wife's traditional orange rolls that don't seem to last long.

We went around the table, as many do on this day, each sharing what we're thankful for. And throughout the warm embrace of the conversation there was not a single glance to a cellphone or the distinctive beep of a message received.

We didn't have to set table rules. Cellphone reception only hits a small corner of the lodge with a single bar of power. The lodge is a rustic, open space with barracks-style sleeping arrangements on the second floor to accommodate the usual crowd of teens or young adults or LDS congregations that host conferences here at the foot of Mount Timpanogos.

For my family's gathering, the centerpiece of the lodge was a large stone fireplace framed by two long couches. We pulled up a third couch and a few chairs so all could share the fire for stories, talent shows or any game that doesn't need an electronic device. In our case it was rapid-fire charades with just enough contorting for hearty laughter and those family pictures that will emerge when we don't want them to.

The front door of the lodge opens to a deck and then the view straight up to the top of the nearly 12,000-foot-high, snow-capped mountain top here in the Wasatch Range. To say the view and setting are spectacular is to state the obvious. So who would want a smartphone to bring in the outside world to distract from that setting?

Well, me for one. Not a want really, more a fear. What if something important is happening? What if I need to be reached, or I need to reach my Deseret News workmates? Someone's always working in the news business, and Thanksgiving Day is no exception. And what if there is a family need for those not here? What if, what if, what if?

The cellphone has become a vital part of regular daily life. It's a lifeline to everything to answer the needs of our jobs, or fulfill civic or church assignments, or to be there for old and young children, or perhaps parents living alone.

Many of us have created an expectation that we can always be reached, and many want instant access to information all the time. We do it to assuage the fears of ourselves and others, but we need to do a better job finding balance to embrace the good while protecting the personal connections best nurtured without a cellphone.

The Deseret News American Family Survey, released earlier this month and which I wrote about last week, focused one section on the use of cellphones. We learned that 46 percent of respondents in our national sample said cellphones have a negative effect on family relationships, while 46 percent said they have no effect (negative or positive). Only 5 percent said definitively that cellphone use has a positive impact on family relationships.

We also learned there is a correlation between the amount of time a person spends on a cellphone and self-reported trouble in their marriage or relationship in the past two years. There is trouble if the cellphone use is excessively high. But causality is not known. Is it high because the couple wants to be distracted, or is the distraction contributing to the problems in a relationship?

Either way, cellphones are becoming something to reckon with in society for children, teenagers and adults. As Deseret News reporter Sara Israelsen-Hartley wrote, "... the survey found that 43 percent of heavy tech users (5-8 hours on a phone per day) reported experiencing relationship troubles, compared with 28 percent among those who spend only an hour on their phones each day."

Another study, detailed in a Deseret News story published late last week headlined "Are screens the enemy? A battle over what's best for teens," also by Israelson-Hartley, offers even more sobering information:

"The study, published earlier this month in Clinical Psychological Science, found that 48 percent of teens who spent five or more hours online each day had one suicide risk factor — such as depression, thinking about, making a plan or attempting suicide. That was 66 percent higher than the teens who only spent one hour a day on phones."

The story rightly points out that some experts are urging caution, noting that many factors — not just the cellphone or other screens — contribute to teen angst. So we are committed to continue exploring the impact screens have on all individuals, as well as how economic pressures, family stability issues, and as the experts note, "lack of exercise and sleep, poor diet, socioeconomic status and even homework," impact teens, parents and society.

So the cellphone was absent around the fireplace and the dinner table this week at Timp Lodge. Every few hours I huddled in a corner to see if there was any breaking news or important messages to respond to, happy to have a single bar of power to help me feel more comfortable.

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But I was more happy for its absence as I learned about Lucy and Andrew's race to the Minnesota airport, fleeing their traffic-stopped vehicle and racing down the freeway off-ramp, bags in tow, to make it to their plane just in time. And happy to learn what my son and his wife have planned next for work and school, and what he did to fix the bumper on his truck. And to see the designs on more than a dozen gingerbread houses, including one that had perfectly aligned candy on one side of the roof, and leftover pancakes plastered to the other.

Photos of our Thanksgiving have made their way onto family Facebook pages and Instagram, but that came after those family moments had been experienced, reinforcing old connections and strengthening bonds in new ones.

For a few hours, all the conversations were in person, and no study is needed to understand the value of that.